top of page

Snapchat, texts stole a driver’s attention and cost a state trooper his life

By Anthany Chiem and Elyana Rodriguez

Jesse Cohen ended a state trooper’s life and nearly ruined his own by reading Snapchats and texting behind the wheel. 

A New York state trooper lost his life because of Jesse Cohen’s distracted driving.

In December 2017, Cohen was 21 and three days past his college graduation when he hit New York State Trooper Joseph Gallager, who was on the Long Island Expressway assisting another motorist. Gallager suffered severe brain injuries and was unable to walk, talk, or eat on his own. He lived another three years before he died from his injuries. 

 When that happened, Cohen’s misdemeanor conviction was upgraded to a felony and he lost his teaching certification.       

“The main thing I was doing right before the crash was texting and using Snapchat. I was involved in several conversations at the time,” Cohen said in a Zoom interview. “I had the expectation that those people were going to respond to me and expecting some kind of notification is really what kept me hooked.”

Social media is addictive, stealing our attention and reducing our attention spans. As soon as a notification rings or appears, it triggers us to shift focus. Many of us are conditioned to check out the notification as soon as it is delivered. A 2023 Gallup study found the average U.S. teen spends 4.8 hours a day on social media.  

Much of the blame for an increase in distracted driving focuses on texting, but Cohen’s crash and one the previous year underscore the distraction social media brings. In 2016, Christal McGee, 18, crashed her car while traveling at 107 miles an hour and using Snapchat. She hit an Uber vehicle, causing traumatic brain injury to the driver. 

Joel Feldman started - End Distracted Driving - to raise awareness of the risks after his 21-year-old daughter Casey was killed in 2009 by a driver who was distracted by GPS and their iced tea. The group believes social media companies “have a responsibility to warn users not to drive while using their apps, and, in some cases, to disable the app so that it cannot be used while driving.” 

“Do you want those you care about to be in a car next to a driver who is using Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, or any other non-driving essential app?” asks Feldman. 

According to the U.S Department of Transportation (DOT), 13 percent of all police-reported motor vehicle crashes in 2021 were a result of distracted driving. More than 3,522 people were killed and 362,415 people injured in a motor vehicle crash involving distracted drivers that year. Social media is a leading cause of distracted driving. 

Cohen was sentenced to five years probation, 30 days in jail, and 1000 community service hours. He works twice a week at an optician’s office and continues speaking to high school students in Driver’s Education classes, even though he is no longer required to do so. 

When he speaks to youth, he emphasizes the dangers of distracted driving and precautions that must be taken while operating a vehicle to prevent it. 

For his part, Cohen places his phone in his vehicle’s glove compartment to prevent any temptations or distractions. Putting the phone down can save a life and prevent any harm, he says. 

Having a personal device, or even an electronic screen in a car increases a driver's likelihood of becoming distracted. Other common distractions are shuffling music, texting and using GPS. Taking your eyes off the road for two or more seconds doubles a driver’s likelihood of a crash, according to data from DOT and the Federal Highway Administration. On average a driver will look away from the road for at least five seconds to text or use their phones. 

“When you are distracted, you shift focus in nanoseconds,” says Kathryn Essig, an Arlington-based ADHD and executive function disorder tutor and coach with Essig Education Group.  “Once you’ve lost focus while you are driving between the next three to five minutes you could make a decision that you generally would not make. You don’t have the level of focus to be actually making wise choices.” 

Teen drivers who don't silence their phones, drive with music or multiple passengers, lower their processing rate, slow their reaction times and increase the likelihood of crashes, says Essig.

Jesse Cohen was using Snapchat and texting when he hit a state trooper who was assisting another driver at the side of the road.

Drivers using their phones can miss brake lights, pedestrians or even potholes and speed bumps. It is important to understand the influence that social media can play on your ability to focus while driving. Drivers ages 15 to 20 have the largest portion of fatal crashes due to distracted driving. The most common reported distractions, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are cell phone conversations, adjusting audio or climate controls, interacting with vehicle passengers, dealing with moving objects in the vehicle, eating or drinking and social media app usage. 

The next time you get behind the wheel, limit your distractions by silencing your phone. You may just be saving your life, others’ lives, or reducing the risks of injuries and costly collisions. 

Cohen’s words to aspiring drivers, “‘If it can happen to me, it can also happen to you. What steps are you going to take moving forward to make sure that it doesn't happen to you?’” 

“The only difference between me and them is that they have their future to make the right choices,” he said.  

Anthany Chiem and Elyana Rodriguez are seniors at Annandale High School, one of Youthcast Media Group’s journalism class partners. 


bottom of page